JEFFERSON CITY | A bill allowing the state to immediately take over the failing Kansas City School District faces an uncertain future after lawmakers insisted that it include several potentially controversial ideas.
Because this version of the bill originated in the Senate, the changes made Wednesday night by the Missouri House Education Committee have the potential to sabotage any chances it had to make it to the governor, said Rep. Mike Lair, a Chillicothe Republican and the bill’s House sponsor.
That’s because there is only one week left before the legislature must adjourn.
“Every amendment makes it that much more difficult to get this bill done,” Lair said. “You’ve got people on this committee who voted for my version of the bill that have placed personal interest in front of helping 17,000 kids in the Kansas City district. I’m very disappointed.”
Under current law, a school district has two years after losing its accreditation to turn its performance around or face the potential of a state takeover. Kansas City schools officially lost accreditation Jan. 1 after failing to reach state performance standards for the second time in 11 years.
The bill aims to remove the two-year waiting period before the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could intervene. At that point, the state could work with the existing school board or dissolve it and replace it with a new governing structure.
But one of the amendments added Wednesday would take away the option of keeping the existing school board in place. The amendment’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jay Barnes of Jefferson City, said the point is to ensure the state has to take responsibility for their actions.
"The state needs to own their decisions," Barnes said.
Barnes sponsored another amendment that would allow students to enroll in virtual courses in a school district other where they live. Democratic Rep. Joe Aull of Marshall said the amendment could be a poison pill for the legislation because many perceive it to be the first step towards open enrollment.
“This is the camel’s nose under the tent for open enrollment,” Aull said. “A lot of people have an issue with this.”
Throughout the education committee hearing, Republican Rep. Mike Thomson of Maryville pleaded with his colleagues not to load up the bill with amendments that could put it in peril.
“Do we want to get this thing through or not?” Thomson asked. “There’s a good chance this thing is going to stall because of the weight of the amendments. It may not even make it out of the House at this point.”
Thomson, who has consistently supported the underlying bill, voted against it Wednesday night in committee. Ultimately, the amended bill was approved by the committee 16-7.
Another amendment would allow students to enroll in a school district they don’t live in if their home is located closer to a school in that district. Yet another would require students in unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts to be held back in the third grade if they are not proficient in reading.
Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican who sponsored the bill in his chamber, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the actions of the education committee.
“It’s too early to write the obituary on this bill,” he said. “But certainly every amendment that was added lessens the opportunity for it to pass.”
Although he hadn’t had the chance to look closely at each amendment, he said the only one that would likely be able to be left was one introduced by Republican Rep. Myron Neth of Liberty.
Neth’s amendment reduces the size of the Kansas City School Board from nine members to seven, with six members from each subdistrict and a seventh member representing the entire district. All seats would be elected at-large, the election would be moved from April to August to boost participation and the mayor would be in charge of filling any vacancies on the board until a new election can be held.
Pearce said he agreed with most of Neth’s proposed changes, but acknowledged giving the mayor any role in the school district is an idea that has been greeted coldly in the Senate.
While disappointed with the actions of his fellow Republicans, Lair said is not surprised. With so little time left in the session, he said lawmakers are trying to find any legislation that still has a chance at passage that they can attach their priorities to.
“As far as education bills go, this bill is the last helicopter out of Saigon,” Lair said.
Rep. Cole McNary, a Republican from Chesterfield who sponsored one of the amendments, said he would be willing to remove his changes if they put the chances of the bill in jeopardy.
There are several possible ways forward, Pearce said. The House could decide to strip out all the potentially controversial amendments. The House could pass the bill and a conference committee could work out differences, although Pearce said the Senate “spoke pretty clearly with a 33 to 1 vote about what we wanted included in this bill.”
Lastly, the Senate could take up the House version of the bill, which has languished in that chamber since it unanimously passed the House on March 1. There have been amendments added, but it is possible those could be removed and the bill could be passed, Pearce said.
“I’m still hopeful we can get something done,” Pearce said. “Luckily, there are seven days left in this session. There is still time.”